‘Historic settlement’ for female armed forces, national defence staff in sexual harassment case

The federal government has reached a tentative settlement on multiple class action lawsuits filed by current and former female and male members of the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence who experienced workplace sexual harassment, assault and discrimination based on gender or sexuality.

The lawsuits collectively sought almost $1 billion in damages. The first one, filed by female CAF and DND members, alleged the CAF was “poisoned by a discriminatory and sexualized culture” that condoned assault, harassment and discrimination. It claimed existing policies were ineffective and the Canadian Armed Forces failed to take steps to prevent that conduct.

The Federal Court of Canada will hold a hearing on Sept. 19 and 20 to determine the fairness of the settlement.

Read: Women more likely than men to experience workplace harassment: Stats Can

Although the government didn’t admit liability, it agreed to pay up to $155,000 for individual class members who experienced sexual misconduct connected to their military service or DND employment, up to a total of $800 million for armed forces members and $100 million for DND members.

If the settlement is approved, the government will also implement changes to Veterans Affairs Canada’s policies around eligibility for disability payments and CAF policies for addressing misconduct in the forces. Members of the class action will also be able to participate in a restorative engagement process.

“This is a historic settlement, it’s one of the largest in Canadian history, but most importantly it provides the opportunity for lasting change in the culture at the Canadian Armed Forces and Department of National Defence, hopefully in order to reduce sexual assault, harassment and discrimination in the future,” says Jonathan Ptak, a partner in Koskie Minsky LLP’s class action group and the one of the counsel on the lawsuit.

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The updated Veterans Affairs policies will allow for the establishment of an occurrence of sexual assault or harassment on the basis of the claimant’s own testimony when determining a disability benefits claim involving injury or disease resulting from the incident. The policies will also prevent disability claims from being rejected purely because the incident of sexual assault or harassment occurred off of CAF property or at an event the claimant wasn’t required to attend. The Veterans Affairs adjudication manual will also be updated to reflect the changes.

The government will put $2 million towards implementing measures that will “validate class member experiences, influence culture change within the CAF and increase awareness of the harms caused by sexual misconduct,” which will be determined by an oversight committee made up of representatives for the CAF and DND class members, the two government entities and both the class members’ and the government’s legal counsels.

The government will also pay the class counsels’ legal fees of $26.5 million plus taxes. Ptak says employers should pay attention to the settlement.

Read: Feds agree to $100-million settlement in veterans’ disability pension lawsuit

“We would hope that other institutions and employers would look to what’s occurred here and take a good hard look at their own policies and procedures, as well as their approach to issues in their own workplaces, to hopefully improve conditions and rectify problems before the lawsuits need to be launched,” he says.

Jody Thomas, deputy defence minister, and Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff general, issued a joint statement on the settlement. “We are pleased that the government and the plaintiffs have been able to reach a comprehensive settlement which will advance the project of real and lasting cultural change.

“We recognize our obligation to ensure a safe work environment for all women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces, employees of the Department of National Defence and staff of the non-public funds, Canadian Forces, who experienced sexual misconduct — including sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination based on sex, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation — in connection with their military service or civilian employment.”

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The statement offered regret about the experiences of those who came forward, adding the department hopes the settlement will bring closure, healing and acknowledgement to the victims and survivors. It noted the settlement includes several measures aimed at ensuring the CAF and DND both continue to make progress.

“We recognize that it takes a lot of courage to come forward to share difficult and painful experiences and press for change.”